At the beginning of each month, management at a large customer call center in New York State sets new revenue goals for their sales reps. When goals are announced there is always an intense backlash. The sales reps complain the goal is too high, management denies, and the cycle repeats. Over time many reps have become resentful, others have left.
It’s interesting to note that there is no actual way to know whether the goals are, in fact, too high until the month has ended.
So how did the reps consistently reach that conlusion so quickly? They found clues elsewhere.
Organizational justice research tells us that when people do not have information to determine whether an outcome is fair, they often use the the fairness of the procedure as a substitute. Transparency, neutrality, proper communication, treating people with dignity and respect, all can be perceived as signals as to whether the outcome (and the authority) should be trusted.
It’s possible that the goals set by this management team were completely equitable. Yet because they reached those decisions, behind closed doors, without much of an attempt to include reps in the process (not even symbolically), reps didn’t believe them.
This focus on process is often difficult for authorities to empathize with. It can seem irrational and unecessary. It’s not. In the book Justice in the Workplace (Vol. 2), Russell Cropanzano writes:
“ceding authority to another person raises the possibility of exploitation and exclusion, people frequently feel uneasy about their relationship with authorities. Therefore the [fairness heuristic] theory argues, people look to fairness of authorities, to help them assess the security of their position in a group, organization, or society.”
And if people don’t feel secure, they won’t deliver their best. Therefore, all authorities have an obligation to not only operate with fairness, but to manage the perception of fairness. Because even when you are fair, if people don’t perceive you to be, then nothing else matters.